Overcoming Potential Perils of Online Learning

Online learning offers many tempting — almost irresistable — possibilities. Almost anyone can study almost anything from almost anywhere.

What’s not to love?

A tough-minded response to that optimistic question might be:

“Yes, anyone can study anything, but will they learn it?”

More precisely: “will they learn it roughly as well as they do in person?”

If the answer to that question is “no,” then it doesn’t really matter that they undertook all that study.

Rachael Blasiman and her team wanted to know if common at-home distractions interfere with online learning.

So: can I learn online while…

…watching a nature documentary?

…texting a friend?

…folding laundry?

…playing a video game?

…watching The Princess Bride?

Helpful Study, Helpful Answers

To answer this important and practical question, Blasiman’s team first had students watch an online lecture undistracted. They took a test on that lecture, to see how much they typically learn online with undivided attention.

Team Blasiman then had students watch 2 more online lectures, each one with a distractor present.

Some students had a casual conversation while watching. Others played a simple video game. And, yes, others watched a fencing scene from Princess Bride.

Did these distractions influence their ability to learn?

On average, these distractions lowered test scores by 25%.

That is: undistracted students averaged an 87% on post-video quizzes. Distracted students averaged a 62%.

Conversation and The Princess Bride were most distracting (they lowered scores by ~30%). The nature video was least distracting — but still lowered scores by 15%.

In case you’re wondering: men and women were equally muddled by these distractions.

Teaching Implications

In this case, knowledge may well help us win the battle.

Blasiman & Co. sensibly recommend that teachers share this study with their students, to emphasize the importance of working in a distraction-free environment.

And, they encourage students to make concrete plans to create — and to work in — those environments.

(This post, on “implementation intentions,” offers highly effective ways to encourage students to do so.)

I also think it’s helpful to think about this study in reverse. The BAD news is that distractions clearly hinder learning.

The GOOD news: in a distraction-free environment, students can indeed start to learn a good deal of information.

(Researchers didn’t measure how much they remembered a week or a month later, so we don’t know for sure. But: we’ve got confidence they had some initial success in encoding information.)

In other words: online classes might not be a panacea. But, under the right conditions, they might indeed benefit students who would not otherwise have an opportunity to learn.

I’ve just learned that both of Dr. Blasiman’s co-authors on this study were undergraduates at the time they did the work. That’s quite unusual in research world, and very admirable! [6-11-19]

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